Rehabilitate Your New Year’s Resolutions

Prague Leaders Magazine, January 2013

The week before the world was supposed to implode as predicted by some interpretations of the Mayan calendar,I shut myself in my office for a few hours and started to think about my 2013 resolutions, hoping to get a head start if the predictions turned out to be wrong.

For many years, I had selected some audacious goals at the start of each new year, but it seemed that the higher I was aiming, the shorter I was falling. Which led me to question our New Year’s resolutions – are they really a positive step toward self-betterment, or a dismal failure of willpower?

Anyone who has tried changing a long term habit, whether it is to exercise more regularly, to stop smoking, or to ignore email for more than ten minutes, knows how frustratingly hard it is. If I had the discipline to see my resolutions through, I wouldn’t need to make them in the first place. Moreover, making resolutions that are never realized or are broken shortly after they are set naturally leads to painful dissatisfactions.

According to psychologist Roy Baumeister, willpower is like a muscle: overuse can lead to burnout. But in Willpower, his book on the subject, Baumeister also demonstrated that self-control can be toned up with small and regular exercises. So this year, instead of selecting some preposterous goals like writing a weekly post in my blog for the next 52 weeks, I decided to rehab my relationship with New Year’s resolutions and try a different approach.


Like many independent coaches, I have learned the importance of marketing and self-promotion. Thanks to the internet and the explosion of social media, every year I explore some new method/way to communicate with my audience. After setting up my web site fifteen years ago, registering on LinkedIn a few years later and creating a Coaching4Success page on Facebook three years ago, a blog seemed like the next logical step.

Since I have been writing a monthly newsletter for the past twelve years, and a bi-monthly article for Prague Leaders Magazine for almost as long, armed with the best of intentions, I thought a wordy blog post every week would be no problem. But unreasonable goals often result in unrealistic plans. To my dismay, I quickly discovered that this additional task required a lot more time and dedication than I could handle, and I quickly modified my original plan to a more manageable one. Instead of a weekly post, I chose a more realistic goal. And those of you who read me know that I decided on shorter monthly posts, often simple offshoots of what I write in my monthly newsletter.

If I had tried to stick to my original objective to write a weekly post for my blog, I would have been rapidly overwhelmed and discouraged, and I suspect I might have given up on writing my blog posts altogether.

It turns out that my suspicions had been proven by a set of experiments in 2009, the findings of which were published in Psychological Science. Participants with more modest resolutions and realistic assessments of their ability keep them performed the best, while people with high opinions of their willpower were most likely to give up on their resolutions, giving in to temptation shortly after they started. My realistic goal is to write interesting articles on a regular basis – not to impress people with the number of posts I write. Knowing now how often I can post in a comfortable and consistent manner, I adapted my writing schedule to meet that objective.


To increase our chances of sticking to a resolution, we need to find out why we are pursuing that objective in the first place. While the “should” might get us started – I should write a blog, I should stop smoking, I should get better at managing my time – the “should” will not help us sustain our effort. Unless what we are trying to achieve fulfills a core need, we have little chance of succeeding.

Changing can be hard and painful. When, for example, we are trying to give up smoking and are then faced with a pleasant and familiar activity like socializing with a glass of wine and a cigarette, the challenge of giving up smoking is that much harder. We need confirmation that giving up smoking is worth the effort. We must be convinced that the benefits of quitting will surpass the pleasures of smoking in a pleasant social setting. And our goal needs to be truly ours – not someone else’s goal.

Some people manage to give up smoking for health reason, some for family reasons. “How can I smoke and tell my kids not to smoke,” said a friend of mine when I asked him about his motivation to stop smoking. You probably know someone who is still addicted to their familiar habit and won’t give it up, despite the recent smoking ban in public places. But they can work around the ban – until quitting smoking becomes a personal objective, they won’t feel truly motivated to give it up.


After setting realistic goals and identifying your true motivation, the next step is to formulate an action plan with easy and achievable tasks, before gradually working up to more challenging ones.

For those of you who can hardly resist food, it has been proven that shopping on a full stomach and with a very specific list of items to buy helps tremendously with efforts to refrain from impulse buying. And being able to anticipate some of your weekly shopping allows you to plan more efficiently the amount and selection of food you wish to consume that week, reducing temptation. Another way to resist temptation is to never bring home any food you wish to eliminate from your diet. You can allow yourself to indulge once in a while outside the house, but not in your home.

If you wish to exercise more but hate to go to the gym, you can team up with a friend who has a dog and either volunteer to walk the dog a couple of times a week or accompany your friend on some of her daily walks. You can also try one of the newer types of gyms that feature group workouts and dedicated partners. Not wanting the let someone else down can be an excellent motivator.

Tailoring your resolutions to an already-established aspect of your life makes the effort seems a lot less difficult, too, rather than trying to fit a totally new routine into your daily schedule. If you are more awake in the morning, schedule the most challenging actions in the morning, and the easiest ones in the evening. And last but not least, don’t forget to implement your action plan. Starting toward a goal facilitates its completion. Studies have demonstrated that goal intentions that are readied with an implementation action plan are more easily reached than mere goal intentions. To be able to achieve our goals, and keep our resolutions, requires not only tenacity but also flexibility. Once you have made a resolution and set goals, identify your motivation, decide on the action plan you need to reach them, and then implement.

With small, regular and easy steps, I believe that rehabilitating my New Year’s resolutions will finally allow me to achieve my goals in 2013. How about you?

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.